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Report: biofuels could play ’significant role’ in accelerating shipping’s decarbonization


December 12, 2019
By Sustainable Shipping Initiative

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The Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) yesterday launched the report “The Role of Sustainable Biofuels in the Decarbonisation of Shipping: The findings of an inquiry into the sustainability and availability of biofuels for shipping,” at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) currently underway in Madrid.

Outlining the findings of an inquiry commissioned by the SSI in January 2019, the report reflects a broad stakeholder consultation process to explore the potential role of biofuels in the decarbonization of shipping. The launch event sees SSI sharing key conclusions and recommendations with COP25 participants, with two of SSI’s members, WWF and the China Navigation Company, offering their perspectives on these.

As the shipping industry explores how to radically decarbonize by mid-century – at a minimum reducing absolute GHG emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2050 – zero-carbon fuels will need to be commercially available and produced from either renewable electricity, biomass or natural gas with carbon, capture and storage. It is not yet clear which of the potential zero-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels has the winning combination of availability, sustainability and competitiveness.

Biofuels derived from biomass may be an attractive option for the shipping sector and can be used as a feedstock to produce alcohol fuels such as ethanol and methanol, liquified bio-gas (LBG) or bio-diesel.

As a decarbonization pathway for shipping, biofuels come with considerable risks related to the supply-demand constraints – and as a consequence also pose risks related to price – as well as carry the additional risk of good intentions resulting in perverse outcomes, for example, increasing carbon emissions.

SSI’s research indicates that in the short-term, biofuels could have a significant role to play to accelerate early decarbonization action across the maritime sector. The data suggest that the sustainable biofuels currently available are under-utilized and could potentially meet shipping’s energy needs of today. However, this supply may be limited in the medium- and longer-term – particularly given the ratcheting up of climate ambition and thus potential demand pressure across all sectors.

Shipping cannot solve or manage these risks and uncertainties in isolation. The maritime industry has the opportunity to play a constructive role in establishing a sustainable bioeconomy, developing the market for sustainable biofuels and facilitate their role in the decarbonization of shipping – as well as that of other sectors, including aviation. All have a role to play in providing clear market signals and in ensuring that sustainability is central to the production and sourcing of biomass feedstocks.

Andrew Stephens, executive director at SSI said: “In 2018, SSI commissioned research, which revealed that zero-emission vessels need to be entering the world’s fleet by 2030, citing advanced biofuels as one of the more economically feasible options, amongst a possible range of low/zero carbon fuels for the shipping industry.

SSI supports a zero-emission shipping sector by 2050 whilst being both fuel- and technology-agnostic. We’re also about collaboration across the entire shipping value chain. Through this inquiry we have canvassed a diverse range of perspectives, from a wide range of stakeholders, surrounding the issues of sustainability and availability of biofuels for shipping. We’re very pleased to be sharing our findings with (and beyond) the maritime industry to contribute to its decarbonization efforts.”

Fernanda de Carvalho, global policy manager for WWF’s Climate and Energy Practice said, “To keep open the window to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, all sectors must transition to zero carbon technologies by 2050. For long-distance international shipping, this is a tough but feasible challenge. New supply of low- and zero-carbon fuels at scale will be key, and the sustainability, risks and life cycle impacts of these fuels must be taken into account. This report provides important insights to inform consideration of the role of biofuels in the short, medium and long-term decarbonization of the sector.”

Katharine Palmer, Lloyd’s Register’s global sustainability manager said: “If shipping is to successfully decarbonize by 2050 and get zero-emission vessels into the market by 2030, urgent action is needed now. SSI’s report “The Role of Sustainable Biofuels in the Decarbonisation of Shipping,” is a proactive step in the right direction and, as a founding member of the Initiative, we are proud to support SSI’s leading role in providing insight into the sustainability of biofuels.

Last year, we identified biofuels may have a role to play in the short-term in our “Zero-Emission Vessels 2030,” study, outlining its key issues – availability and sustainability. SSI’s latest report is the next chapter, investigating biofuels’ role in shipping’s decarbonization journey, answering key questions about its durability as a long-term fuel and its associated risk landscape. This report will help maritime decision-makers evaluate biofuels to see if it is a suitable pathway for them and rightfully continue the discussion about zero carbon alternatives in maritime.”

Simon Bennett, general manager – sustainable development at The China Navigation Company said, “The shipping sector must act now, without waiting to be bound by legislation as by then it will be too late to meet necessary targets, but we cannot act alone. We need to coalesce and align on sustainable solutions for radical decarboniation, taking action to mitigate the climate crisis we find ourselves in, in the short-, medium- and longer-term – and the energy transition in between.

Finding solutions needs businesses both within and upstream of the sector, together with policy makers to work together in transition planning, recognizing the potential opportunities as well as the risks posed by the various potential substitute fuels and technologies. While biofuels represents one of the solutions today, we need to continue innovating, investing in and scaling up other potential options to carry us through and beyond 2050.”

The full report can be found here.